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April 18, 2024

Survey: Autism and ADHD widespread in media, but so is neurodiversity ignorance

ADHD and autistic traits can make for brilliant journalists, but employers need to do more.

By Dominic Ponsford

Press Gazette research has found widespread examples of people with autism and ADHD working in news media, even if they often hide their diagnosis from colleagues.

Some 136 of our newsletter subscribers filled out our survey on neurodiversity in the media and 64 said they had a neurodivergent condition, with ADHD and autism by far the most common responses. All but five of those who responded to our survey work in the media.

These conditions are considered by most to be disabilities which can come with profound challenges. But our survey respondents also revealed they have particular strengths that can make them well suited to jobs in journalism and the media such as restless curiosity, painstaking attention to detail and the ability to “hyperfocus” on specific tasks.

Some survey respondents reported having to leave jobs, or failing to get a fair hearing at interviews, because employers were unable to make relatively minor adjustments for them. Under the Equality Act 2010 employers should make reasonable adjustments to accommodate those with mental disabilities in the same way as they should those with physical ones.

Some also expressed frustration about those in the media who seem sceptical about the very existence of conditions like ADHD and autism. One survey respondent said: “Neurodiversity actually is not a mental health condition, identity, new label or new culture war frontier. It’s a biological ‘miswiring’ which means nervous systems are often more sensitive than the average person. This is science not opinion”

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Dr Nancy Doyle, CEO of consultancy and training company Genius Within, told Press Gazette: “According to the World Economic Forum, the 21st century workforce will need creativity, innovation, problem-solving and entrepreneurial flair. These are the skills of the ADHD and autistic brain.

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“Studies have repeatedly shown higher levels of starting businesses, scientific breakthroughs and problem-solving for neurodivergent thinkers. However, increasingly we are finding that neurodivergent people seek careers in creative industries like journalism, design, media.”

Read Dr Doyle’s tips on how media employers can support neurodivergent staff here.

Neurodiversity in the media: Headline survey findings

Press Gazette’s survey on neurodiversity in the media was sent to 18,358 email subscribers of whom around 6,000 opened the email.

Of 136 readers who filled out the survey 47% said they considered themselves to be neurodivergent (it should be noted that survey respondents were self-selecting, so probably skewed towards those who are neurodivergent).

The biggest category of neurodiversity selected by respondents was ADHD (46), followed by autism (24) dyslexia (9), dyspraxia (9), dyscalculia (4), Tourette’s (4) and slow processing (3). Many respondents have more than one condition.

ADHD in the media

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was by far the most common form of neurodiversity among Press Gazette readers who work in the media with 68% of neurodivergent respondents saying this diagnosis applies to them. In the UK it is reckoned that around 3% of the population have ADHD.

More than a quarter of respondents with ADHD (13) said they were also autistic.

Of the 46 ADHD respondents, 31 said they work in editorial/content roles in the media, four work in commercial or sales roles and three described their role as business/management. Some 19 said they were self employed and 27 said they were employed.

Challenges and strengths for those with ADHD working in the media

Times Radio presenter Darryl Morris said ADHD was a disability but he does not necessarily feel disabled (read his full interview here).

He said: "There's a really powerful potent combination, which is being distracted, aka curious, stumbling across something during those moments of distraction, which triggers a hyper-focus and then working so damn hard on that thing that it becomes something very, very special. And that is perfect for journalism."

Times Radio presenter Darryl Morris
Times Radio presenter Darryl Morris

Selected survey responses from journalists and media workers with ADHD:

"I think it helps in my job. It means I can be hyper-focused. But where it hinders is when I'm working on something that doesn't interest me." UK staff journalist.

"I think it is part of my being creative but it also concerns some colleagues who dislike the fact that I don't always deal with matters in a predictable manner." Europe-based media business leader.

"I feel it gives me a creative edge, but it also makes it hard to stay organised and do routine work. I excel at one-off creative tasks, but am rubbish at repetitive or scheduled tasks." Self-employed UK journalist.

"I have great ideas, although sometimes get carried away and need to be reminded of the realities of the scope of projects. Focus can be problematic if I'm working on a piece of work that requires me to draw on info from many different sources." Self-employed UK journalist.

"Makes me want to do everything perfectly which is good but means I am very hard on myself if I make mistakes and struggle to move on from them." UK staff journalist.

"While it can make organisation and networking much more difficult, it may be the root of my creativity, and allows me to work really effectively under pressure." UK staff journalist.

"The ability to hyperfocus to get things done quickly and to a high standard is like a superpower. Moving on to new things every day satisfies the ADHD craving for novelty. But emotional dysregulation can make life difficult in the job sometimes." UK staff journalist.

"Now I am older and more confident I can use it to to help with problem solving, thinking outside the box, systemic thinking, hyper-focus work. Earlier on in my career it was very difficult to navigate as I tried to hide how it played out and was very conscious of my weaknesses." UK media business leader with ADHD and dyslexia.

"I can analyse problems and issues and make conclusions extremely quickly. Very high IQ. Poor sense of time and unable to make strategic plans, and require a deadline to get a task done. But given a deadline, the task will get done as requested on time. Working in an office is very stressful, as it's full of distractions and noise, which can cause sensory overload. Until I received treatment I suffered from severe anxiety disorder and long-term depression." UK self-employed journalist with ADHD and dyspraxia

Are media employers supportive of those with ADHD?

The vast majority of ADHD respondents to our survey said their employers had either failed to accommodate their needs, or they had kept their diagnosis secret.

But there were also stories of employers who have helped those with ADHD to thrive.

"They're supposed to have done, but nothing has happened - the buck is passed between HR, OH [occupational health] and line manager, all claiming lack of expertise. Self-employed now, but when I was employed my employers would talk a lot about the importance of positive mental health and talk about how much they wanted to support people who weren't neurotypical etc; the reality was they could not give a shit." UK journalist.

"I've worked for my employer for a long time so they know me well. I feel comfortable enough to do things I need to do - like doodling in meetings - without being judged." UK staff journalist.

"Mine have been brilliant. They have provided all the materials I need, and even paid for me to see a private doctor about medical cannabis. And yes, I use it now. " UK staff journalist.

"My current employers are very people-focused, and have neurodiversity guidelines in place. They've been incredibly supportive in my journey of late diagnosis. I haven't needed much in the way of actual accommodations, but the understanding of how my brain works has led to a more comfortable working environment for me, and less tension with colleagues." Employed UK journalist.

"I've been a journalist for 20 years and I think the media is FULL of neurodiverse people. Journalism is supposed to be a perfect job for us, right? I joined the Diversity Equity and Inclusion team in my company, thinking I would be a much-needed voice for neurodiversity, and turns out most of us on the team are neurodiverse." Australian staff journalist.

What more can employers do to help those with ADHD?

Most survey respondents agreed that more could be done to help staff with ADHD. Here were some of the suggestions:

  • "More flexible working times, with less focus on the 9-5 and more focus on simply meeting targets."
  • "Flexibility and empathy are key."
  • "Better understanding is key. For example once you know about 'hyperfocus' you can tap into what triggers it in your employee to make the most of their skill and passion."
  • "Some things, like tight deadlines and sudden changes to plans can't be helped in this environment. But clear communication, easy to access written reference guides, and an open, visible workflow between departments can go a long way towards helping people deal with any difficulties."
  • "I find that often, people in management positions dont really know how neurodiverse conditions effect employees. They think ADHD is the naughty little boy being disruptive at school, or autism is Rain Man."

Autism in the media

Autism was the second most common neurodivergent condition highlighted by our survey and affected 26 out of 136 respondents. Autism appears to be less prevalent than ADHD and is thought to affect around 1% of the UK population.

Our autistic survey respondents were more likely to be self employed (14) than employed (10). Looking at the UK-wide picture just 29% of adults with autism are employed, according to Government statistics.

The majority of our autistic respondents (18) work in editorial/content roles - with four working in business/management roles.

Autism is described as a spectrum condition which affects everyone diagnosed with it differently. Autistic people can find it difficult to read people and understand their intentions, they can be hyper-sensitive to light, sound, smell and/or touch. Autistic people can find multi-tasking difficult and take longer to process tasks - but they can also have great focus around areas of special interest.

Strengths and challenges for those with autism working in the media

Freelance journalist Lydia Wilkins was diagnosed with autism aged 15. Now 25, she has carved out a successful career as a reporter, editor, speaker and author (read full interview here).

She said: "I have the nickname from my editor and a colleague of mine of being the detail freak. I'm better when it comes to long-form projects, simply because I think it's easier for me to have a mastery of the detail and sometimes picking up the stuff that people have missed, or maybe following up on stuff."

Journalist Lydia Wilkins. (Credit: Deb Burrows)
Journalist Lydia Wilkins. (Credit: Deb Burrows)

Here is a selection of our survey responses about the strengths and challenges for this working in news media with autism:

"For me, it means restless, ranging curiosity that is a bonus in my job. I think it makes me a better interviewer: I'm used to masking, and that somehow makes it easier to connect with an interviewee, relax them, chat with them on their terms, even if I don't have much in common (I'm a lifestyle journalist so no need to ask the hard-hitting questions). And it gives me a slightly slant creativity that means I come up with different angles and ideas, and makes me a better writer. My autism means I struggle to build and maintain relationships with contacts, which definitely has a negative impact on my work. I've developed a lot of capturing and recording systems to combat my poor memory (scribbles in a notebook go in a Google doc every day, which I use as a to-do list, and THANK GOD my company brought in Monday.com for issue-planning), but they don't always work." Australian journalist with ADHD and autism.

"I was actually recently made redundant, but I found the pressure to come across as neurotypical hindered me in my job. Neurodiverse traits were often misread. For example, in large meetings where I'm not expected to speak, I'd have my camera off to help me focus, but management saw this as a negative thing." Self-employed UK journalist with ADHD and autism.

"I get easily distracted but have hyperfocus that means I can work incredibly quickly, I am very creative and come up with great ideas for stories, but sometimes I get overwhelmed and exhausted by social interactions and press events or networking, it's complex." Australian staff journalist with ADHD and autism.

"On the whole it helps, particularly with product development and having focus on the reader/advertiser journey - and in particular in designing a CMS." A UK employee in technology/product development with autism/Tourette's syndrome.


"On the one hand, I've managed to turn my autistic special interest into my beat, and I'd like to think it gives me a real passion for (and consequent deep knowledge of) my coverage area that many other reporters don't have. I definitely have an unusual attention to detail and persistence when pursuing something I'm interested in that has gotten me a positive reputation in my newsroom. And, in a weird way, I think having autism has made me a better interviewer and colleague. I had to very intentionally teach myself social and communication skills when I was younger, and as an adult, I find that compared with my neurotypical peers, I'm actually often more perceptive of others' nonverbal cues, better at adapting to my conversational partner's needs, and clearer in my communications.

"On the other, journalism can be a pretty tough career for an autistic person sometimes. Days that are heavy on social interaction where I need to interview multiple sources and meet with my editor and have casual conversations with my peers can be extremely draining. Covering events like conferences and trade shows, with their fluorescent lights and tons of competing sensory inputs, is insanely overstimulating. And the ever-changing nature of working in news is often at odds with my desire for routine and planning." Autistic staff journalist in Australia.


"I find my condition gives me the ability to hyperfocus on my beat. I am able to know it inside and out. I also have a great amount of empathy for those whose stories are less often heard. However, it can hinder me in understanding implicit instructions." Self-employed journalist with ADHD, autism and dyscalculia in UK.

Are employers doing enough to support staff with autism?

"No accommodations were made for me, and it was part of the reason I quit. Lack of understanding about the conditions, eg need for headphones, is stigmatising. If you look at the strengths and unique characteristics of ND people, many of them are actually tailor-made for journalism and media, the industry is missing a trick by not harnessing their skills correctly." Currently unemployed graphic designer in the US.

"I have been freelance for the past decade after difficult experiences with employers due to refusal to consider accommodations that would have removed barriers to my employment - e.g. flexible working, quiet office, reduced hours, speech-to-text captioning in Zoom meetings." Freelance UK journalist.

What more can employers do to help autistic people thrive in the media?

  • "More awareness of how best to work with neurodiverse people - e.g. giving very clear briefs, being direct with your wants, setting expectations, allowing different workstyles."
  • "Flexible working arrangements are a huge help as is use of tech solutions such as Otter AI which instantly transcribes talk to text. Being allowed to wear noise cancelling headphones in the office and not being made to answer the phone on demand constantly during your shift while you are trying to write."
  • "Consult Government Access to work scheme which provides in-house accessibility cover and advice to employers eg - headphones if needed."
  • "Educate themselves on what neurodiversity actually is - it's not a mental health condition, identity, new label or new culture war frontier. It's a biological 'miswiring' which means nervous systems are often more sensitive than the average person. This is science not opinion."
  • "Understanding that we are really good at finding and gathering news, have attention to detail overlooked by others, and work well with deadlines (as I did over 40 years). Also that we have most often worked without a ND diagnosis and, in my case, the pandemic brought it to the fore."
  • "I think the media is largely accepting of neurodiversity, that's why there are so many of us."
  • "Open up conversations and make aware that neurodivergence makes for good journalism if supported by good editors."
  • "I think better education on what neurodiversity is, and especially the fact that it's not inherently tied to intelligence or capabilities, would be helpful. There are also many workplace decisions and policies that benefit neurodiverse people that I think many neurotypical people also like; the biggest ones that come to mind are flexible/remote work options and more sensory-friendly offices (think warm floor lighting and task lamps rather than fluorescent overheads, personal offices or at least dedicated quiet areas with sufficient space to accommodate everyone who wants to use them, etc.)."
  • "Accept that neurodiversity is everywhere. Some people need more time to work. Some people need to work in a quiet, dark room (don't walk in unannounced and turn the light on!!). We aren't all tech whizzes - our strengths lie in many areas. Don't throw out our resumes just because we disclose neurodivergence. It is such a strength to have on your team."
  • "More media articles need to be aware that their readers could be neurodiverse, and consider how you can make your articles (whether video, audio, written, social etc) are accessible for all disabilities."
  • "There is a very rigid accepted way of doing things in big newsrooms and networking events in particular as they are usually run can be very overwhelming. So some more understanding and flexibility and points of difference in how events are run could help people. I would suggest neurodiverse people could better thrive in smaller publishers/newsrooms."

More from Press Gazette on neurodiversity in the media:

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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